2014 AFL Labour Day Message: Working Albertans need unions (perhaps now more than ever)

Labour Day is a holiday to celebrate the accomplishments of working people and unions.

The first part of that equation is a relatively easy sell.

Even here in politically conservative Alberta, almost everyone would agree with the sentiment expressed in the old union song, “Solidarity Forever,” which points out that without the “brains and muscle” of ordinary working people “not a single wheel would turn.”

So, it’s not difficult to convince people they should applaud the hard work of nurses, teachers, electricians, heavy-duty mechanics, rig hands and the multitude of other people who make up Alberta’s labour force and who, collectively, keep our economy running.

But unions? That’s a different story.

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2014 AFL Labour Day Message: Working Albertans need unions (perhaps now more than ever)


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Labour Day Message: Working Albertans need unions (perhaps now more than ever)

Labour Day is a holiday to celebrate the accomplishments of working people and unions.

The first part of that equation is a relatively easy sell.

Even here in politically conservative Alberta, almost everyone would agree with the sentiment expressed in the old union song, “Solidarity Forever,” which points out that without the “brains and muscle” of ordinary working people “not a single wheel would turn.”

So, it’s not difficult to convince people they should applaud the hard work of nurses, teachers, electricians, heavy-duty mechanics, rig hands and the multitude of other people who make up Alberta’s labour force and who, collectively, keep our economy running.

But unions? That’s a different story.

For decades now, politicians, business people and conservative media pundits have been feeding Albertans a constant stream of negative messages about unions.

If you listen to some of these often self-interested critics, unions are a blight on the landscape akin to the hordes of locusts described in the Bible.

But are the naysayers right?

In order to appreciate the true value of unions, I’d like to engage in a thought experiment. Put simply, imagine there were no unions in Alberta.

Right now, Alberta’s 420,000 unionized workers make an average of 18 percent more per hour than their non-unionized counterparts. Economists agree that union contracts have the effect of pulling wages up for all workers in a given sector, not just those who belong to unions. So, if there were no unions, what do you think would happen to family incomes in the province?

If that doesn’t convince you, consider things like pensions, drug and dental benefits and workplace safety. If there were no unions to establish benchmarks for benefits and pensions or to fight for safer work places, do you think employers would improve upon the status quo, or would they backslide?

In addition, unions have traditionally played important political and social roles in Canadian society. As economist Paul Krugman has written, unions have become one of “the only effective counterbalances to the power of corporations” and the elite policies pushed by conservative politicians.

If there had been no unions engaging in advocacy work over generations, do you think governments would ever have agreed to introduce things like Medicare, the Canada Pension Plan (CPP) or occupational health and safety legislation?

If there had been no unions to say “no way!” to Ralph Klein’s so-called “Third Way” in health care, do you think that Medicare would have survived intact?

More recently, if there were no unions to lead protests against the irresponsible use of the Temporary Foreign Worker program, do you think the Harper government would have ever considered the rollbacks to the program it announced this summer?

The final question I’d like to poise to you as part of my thought experiment looks to the future, not the past and has to do with an issue that is raising concerns around the world: income inequality.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) recently released a report saying growing income inequality is threatening global economic security. Countries with high levels of income inequality are more prone to recessions because their citizens have weak or declining purchasing power. At the same time, they face higher crime rates, lower educational scores, and shorter life expectancies.

Growing inequality is also problematic because increasing concentration of economic power invariably leads to increasing political power for the rich – which, in turn, subverts real democracy.

What does any of this have to do with Alberta or with unions? Well, it probably comes as no surprise to anyone that Alberta is, by far, Canada’s most unequal province.

According to the U of A’s Parkland Institute, almost all of Alberta’s robust economic growth over the past 30 years has been gobbled up by a small sliver of people at the top of our province’s economic ladder.

For example, after adjusting for inflation, the average incomes of the bottom 99 percent of Albertans increased by a modest 13 percent between 1982 and 2011. During the same period, incomes for the top 1 percent increased by 99 percent and incomes for the top 0.1 percent increased by 149 percent.

One of the most striking features of Alberta’s economic story is that the rise of incomes for the top 1 percent has been almost exactly inversely proportional to the decline in union coverage in the province, brought about by anti-union labour laws.

To put it another way, the harder it became for unions to organize, the easier it became for those at the top of the pyramid to grab the fruits of economic growth for themselves, rather than sharing them with everyone else.

That’s why Labour Day should be a day to contemplate the role of unions, not just the role of workers.

For more than 100 years, unions have helped improve wages, benefits and working Canadians for all working Canadians, not just their members.

They’ve also played an important role in standing up to powerful corporations whose interests don’t always align with the public’s and championing policies, like Medicare, that benefit middle-income families.

Rising income inequality is the latest challenge faced by working Albertans. It’s a challenge that threatens the very foundations of our middle class society – even our democracy. And it’s a challenge that unions – and perhaps only unions – can overcome.

In that way, this Labour Day, let’s celebrate unions: because they’re still needed in Alberta today. Perhaps more than ever.

Gil McGowan is president of the Alberta Federation of Labour

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Tenth annual Farm Workers Day marks track record of government indifference

Despite promises of reform, province’s agricultural workers are excluded from employment standards

Calgary - As agricultural workers mark the province’s tenth annual Farm Workers Day, Alberta remains the only place in Canada that excludes them from employment standards, health and safety and ‎the right to unionize.

On Wednesday, August 20, at an event at the Bridgeland Riverside Community Centre (917 Centre Ave. NE, Calgary AB) the Alberta Federation of Labour joined representatives of other concerned organizations in calling for the immediate inclusion of agricultural workers in Alberta’s workplace standards.

“The people who work in Alberta’s vibrant agricultural sector deserve the same protections as any other Albertans,” AFL secretary treasurer Siobhan Vipond said. “It’s an antiquated exception from the rules that doesn’t make sense in the 21st century. This doesn’t happen anywhere else in Canada – or in most G7 nations. We’re completely alone in this unfair, unjust and callous disregard of the wellbeing of agricultural workers.”

More than 50,000 Albertans work in the agricultural sector. They account for 2.6 per cent of our workforce — and yet have few legal protections in their workplace. One in five agricultural workers in Alberta work at worksites with more than 20 employees.

“When these workers were excluded in the law, it was 1943, and farming was mostly done on family farms,” Vipond said. “But it’s been 70 years, and farming has changed. It is now dominated by huge corporations operating massive hog barns, corporate farms and mushroom factories, employing hundreds of workers. It’s time the law reflected reality, and protected these workers.”

Agricultural workers are exempt for most of the basic employment protections all other Albertans take for granted which makes them very vulnerable to abuse and exploitation. These workers have:

  • No basic employment protections, such as minimum wage, limits on hours of work, rest breaks, overtime or statutory holiday pay;
  • No health and safety protection ;
  • No WCB when they get injured; and
  • No right to unionize.

“Too many injuries and tragedies happen on Alberta’s farms. Too many of those could be prevented. There have been promises from the government, but no action on this issue,” Vipond said. “The exclusion of agricultural workers from the most basic workplace protections is a travesty, and one that Premier Hancock could rectify with the stroke of a pen.”

The annual Alberta Farm Workers Day commemorates the death of agricultural worker Terry Rash, who lost his life at the hands of his employer on August 20, 1999. Each year since 2005, Albertans commemorate Rash’s death, as well as the many other agricultural workers who have lost their lives as a result of work-related illness or injury.

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MEDIA CONTACT:

Olav Rokne, Communications Director, Alberta Federation of Labour at 780.218.4351 (cell)
or via e-mail
orokne@afl.org

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2014 Ltr to Kenney_AFL proposal_TFW phase down_2014Aug14

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2014 Overview of locations and jobs where TFWs were paid less than Canadians

Overview of locations and jobs where TFWs were paid less than Canadians

Supporting document to News Release Aug 15: Alberta companies given green light to underpay thousands of TFWs

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2014 LMOs issued for less than prevailing wage rates

Internal FOIP Documents:

2014 LMOs issued for less than prevailing wage rates

Supporting document to News Release Aug 15: Alberta companies given green light to underpay thousands of TFWs


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AB companies given green light to underpay thousands of TFWs 2014

Evidence shows Harper government continues to allow TFW program to undermine Canadian wages

Edmonton – The wages of Canadians are continuing to be undermined by the Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP).

Internal government documents obtained by the Alberta Federation of Labour show that Alberta companies were given the green light to underpay thousands of Temporary Foreign Workers in 2013.

The documents are the latest evidence that the misuse of the Temporary Foreign Worker Program is deliberate, pervasive and not limited to a few sectors of the Canadian economy.

“These documents are a snapshot of what was happening while Jason Kenney, the minister responsible for the program, was telling the public he had taken steps to better monitor and enforce the rules around the program,” Alberta Federation of Labour president Gil McGowan said. “Behind closed doors, they knew the rules were being bent and broken, and they knew thousands of TFWs were being underpaid and used as pawns to drive down wages for all Albertans.”

In 2013, 3,718 individual positions were approved across Canada in the low-skill categories, under 535 Labour Market Opinions (LMO).

Of those permits, the vast majority 2,122 of them were issued to employers in Alberta under 294 Labour Market Opinions.

TFWs were brought in to be paid less than Canadians as truck drivers, shipping and receiving, service station attendants, as health care workers, nurse aides, front desk clerks, metal fabrication labourers, delivery drivers, woodworking machine operators, heavy equipment operators, machining tool operators, automotive mechanics, mine labourers, and concrete, clay, and stone forming operators.

“As you look at these documents, it’s pretty clear that the problems in the Temporary Foreign Worker program extend far beyond the food services industry,” McGowan said. “These documents show the TFW program is being used to keep wages low, and to pay people less than what is paid to Canadians.”

TFWP regulations give Minister Kenney’s department the power to deny work permits if wages offered a worker in the Program are below prevailing regional wages for that particular occupation.

“PC leadership candidates, Conservative Members of Parliament, even Justin Trudeau are whining about the changes to the TFW Program,” McGowan said. “Whenever you hear a politician fighting to expand the TFW program, you know that they’re working for low-wage lobbyists and insiders, not for the good of Albertans.”

The documents, which contain records from all Canadian provinces and territories, can be accessed here:

LMOs issued for less than prevailing wage rates

Overview of locations and jobs where TFWs were paid less than Canadians

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MEDIA CONTACT:

Olav Rokne, Communications Director, Alberta Federation of Labour at 780.218.4351 (cell)
or via e-mail
orokne@afl.org

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2014 Ltr to Horner_re teachers pre-1992 pension

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Message from Alberta Federation of Labour President Gil McGowan in Regards to CRTC Fines

The AFL sent an interactive telephone broadcast message to hundreds of thousands of Albertans in the final week of the last election campaign in order to poll opinion on the Wildrose Party’s position on healthcare.

From the beginning, we wanted to comply with all CRTC regulations regarding recorded voice messages. However, in contravention of the rules, we failed to include a 1-800 number and our address. That was a mistake and we admit it.

We have taken responsibility for that mistake from day one. With that in mind, we have agreed to pay a $50,000 fine. We are also in the process of developing internal systems to ensure all CRTC rules are followed in the future.

We want to make it abundantly clear that we have no problem with the CRTC’s rules about recorded voice messages. The rules are fair and the CRTC has been even-handed in the enforcement of the rules.

As the CRTC made clear in their press release, from the very beginning everyone at the Alberta Federation of Labour has co-operated with them. We have worked with them to make sure that regulations are better understood, and that this will not happen again.

As president of the AFL, I know that the buck stops with me. I have learned lessons from this experience. Every effort will be made to ensure that all future broadcast messages from the AFL are in full compliance of the rules.


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Death of 15-year old Worker in Drumheller Tragic Reminder of Alberta’s Unsafe Work Laws

Alberta remains one of the most dangerous places in Canada to work, especially for young workers: AFL

 

 Edmonton – The Alberta Federation of Labour is responding to Saturday’s death of a 15-year-old worker.

Alberta’s child, youth, and adolescent labour laws are among the worst in Canada, says the AFL. The province had a chance to toughen up those standards in a recent Employment Standards review, but nothing came of it.

“Alberta’s child labour laws are among the most lax in Canada,” says Siobhan Vipond, AFL Secretary Treasurer. “The AFL has repeatedly made recommendations to improve working conditions and safety standards, specifically for young workers. This weekend’s tragic news is yet another reminder that much more needs to be done to keep Albertans safe at work.”

“Just a few months ago, Employment Minister Thomas Lukaszuk launched a review of Alberta’s workplace laws. But the first item up for review was a question about expanding child labour,” says Vipond. “Instead of rushing more young workers onto potentially unsafe work sites, we need to keep young workers safe. Today, Alberta is one of the most unsafe places for young people to work.”

The AFL’s submission on April 11, 2014 to the Employment Standards contained several pages of recommendations on young workers.

 "Alberta needs targeted inspections of workplaces that employ 15-17 year olds, especially in construction and other comparatively dangerous occupations,” says Vipond. “The AFL made urgent recommendations earlier this year, and this past weekend we are sadly reminded why these changes are so desperately needed in Alberta.”

 A recent survey showed 49.7% of 797 adolescents surveyed had experienced at least one workplace injury in the previous year.

For 15-17 year olds, the research has shown young, minor workers are particularly vulnerable to abuses in the workplace, such as illegal deductions, unsafe work, handling of hazardous materials, and sexual harassment.

For that reason, the AFL recommended a program of targeted inspections and a special, mandated health and safety training programme for employers who hire 15-17 year old Albertans. Alberta must also review whether some industrial activities or occupations are prohibited for adolescents, particularly in forklift operations and construction work.

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MEDIA CONTACT:

Brad Lafortune, Alberta Federation of Labour at 780.901.1177 (cell)
or via e-mail
blafortune@afl.org

 

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